Our statement on Chris Crowley’s Grub Street piece on Kermit Westergaard

The Ridgewood Tenants Union was founded in April 2014 with the mission of growing tenant power.  Ours is a neighborhood where powerful local institutions have historically opposed affordable and public housing.  The district’s elected officials have historically focused their efforts on catering to the interests of white homeowners.  None of this is an exaggeration: Our neighborhood has a fascist history that continues to shape the present, as outlined in yesterday’s article by Rico Clefi in the BrooklynRail. For example, Clefi quotes the then-president of the Glendale Taxpayers Association (now known as the Glendale Property Owners Association) as saying, “The time has come to protect our homes and property,” in response to proposals in the 1940s to invest in public housing.  Ridgewood still has none, and rents continue to rise, even during the pandemic.

Gentrification is a man-made process facilitated by speculators and developers whose hunger for profit blinds them to the destruction they leave in their wake. If you think this statement sounds extreme you have probably never felt the impacts of gentrification yourself. In RTU we see first-hand the distress, anguish, and despair felt by every person going through a violent eviction or living in fear of losing their home.  When developers like Kermit Westergaard evict long term tenants in order to rent their apartments at more than double the cost, it’s clear that they profit from this man-made phenomenon.

Chris Crowley’s article from today highlights how new businesses in a gentrifying neighborhood can either be part of the problem or, instead, elect to band with working-class tenants and cast themselves as self-aware anchors for potential transformative change. 

Westergaard, who is one of the owners of Rolo’s, claims to be “investing in the long-term economic health of the neighborhood.”  We must ask how he thinks he’s accomplishing this if he’s solely leasing commercial space to tenants who aren’t from our neighborhood, and as he puts his residential units up for rent at more than double their previous cost, where they are  decidedly out of reach for long-term residents.  A person who claims to care about the economic health of the neighborhood should care about the people who have made this neighborhood their home for decades. Unfortunately, the facilitators of gentrification fail to see the ecosystem that already exists in a place they have not made an effort to get to know. They aren’t bringing life back to our neighborhood—we’ve been here, surviving the market forces that want us gone.

To powerful neighborhood stakeholders and homeowners, “protecting our homes and property” means welcoming gentrifying businesses.  To the members and organizers of RTU it is obvious that these investments do not serve everyone. While some are trying to turn the neighborhood into a playground for the rich, we are working to find ways to build transformative change from the bottom up.  In the coming weeks, we’ll announce our campaign for equitable development in Ridgewood. With the gentrification our neighborhood has seen in the last few years, there’s no doubt that we need to build a strong base of diverse tenants working together for people power and equitable planning. Development must be inclusive and just for all of us. Will you join us?